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How Will 3D Printing Impact the Supply Chain?

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3D printing holds a lot of promise and is heavily backed by investors, but only really came to wider media attention this year.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, pioneering companies like Makerbot and 3D Systems, Inc. showed off the vast potential for the technology.

The 3D Printing Impact on Supply Chain Management

What hasn't been discussed quite as widely is just how 3D printing impacts the supply chain, not to mention the managers who must predict and adjust to such changes.

At first glance, 3D printing could easily be seen as a damaging development for existing warehouse and supply chain solutions.

The linear make, move, store and distribute model of the supply chain is clearly disrupted when the means of production can be purchased by anyone, for uses personal or professional. So doesn't this technology bypass almost all of the traditional process?

The Current Limitations of 3D Printing

Not exactly. There are a number of limitations to consider before a game-changing technological breakthrough hits your supply chain. These include:

  • Early stage technology - For all the attention being paid to 3D printing, the products themselves are still limited and in the early adopter stage. The hallmarks of this stage are high cost and limited products, which prevent mass adoption. Realistically we have several years before this begins to change, so you have some time to ponder your company's response!
  • Regulations - New technology is always (eventually) subject to new regulations that govern its use. Home manufacturing takes this to another level because of the ability to produce potentially dangerous items - guns, for example - and the uncertainty over operational safety. Even with 3D printers hitting the consumer market, lawmakers and industry watchdogs will be watching to ensure that safety standards are established and adhered to.
  • Liability - In a similar vein,  companies will need to ensure that any part they play in a 3D manufacturing process, whether providing hardware or the software and blueprints required to use it, is subject to liability insurance. This will be another new field to explore and draw up policies, adding to the many hurdles before providers can enter the 3D printing market.
  •  Quality - The types of product that can currently produced by 3D printers is wide but not so deep, meaning that everything from replacement parts to candy can be created, but not necessarily to the level of quality that consumers expect. The hype around the technology can easily overtake the reality of its current abilities, which again means more testing and transition time before runaway disruption occurs.
3D printed products: Intriguing but still early days (Photo credit: Creative Tools)

For the moment 3D printing is a promising technology with huge potential to disrupt the supply chain, but it will still take many years to realize that potential. The transition is likely to be far slower than the media portrays.

In short this means that supply chain managers should prepare for 3D printing, but not panic over it!

3D Printing and Supply Chain Integration

With those limitations acknowledged, it's important to focus on the areas of the supply chain where 3D printing could have a more immediate impact.

A current favorite is towards low volume production, the scale of which tends to prohibit more extensive supply chain access by its very nature. A small crafts maker, for example, may not have access to a full warehouse assembly solution due to the size of its operation.

In this scenario, a smaller 3D printing solution will be worth the initial investment to produce small run volumes at a lower cost. The same company could employ the device to create basic packaging as well, making the  limited "in-house supply chain" a reality. At higher volumes this same company will currently struggle to keep up with demand, however, at which point they would probably need to move to more traditional high-volume supply chain solutions.

Prototyping and R&D will also be less costly for many companies. The ability to produce small scale test versions will have similar cost advantages to the example above, even when applied to larger organizations before they spend more on larger scale production.

Extending that idea, 3D printing could also be used to bridge smaller production problems at first - tough to obtain products or on-demand requirements, for example - which could actually boost existing supply chain's ability to react. Think in terms of replacement parts or value-added production items integrated into existing areas of the supply chain, where the need to special order can sometimes cause a bottleneck. In this scenario, traditional production methods benefit substantially from the increased efficiency that the technology affords.

For the near future, 3D printing's impact on the supply chain is likely to be limited to these low volume and targeted operational ends. This will inevitably expand in the years to come, however, so supply chain managers must understand the changes and be ready to react.

In future pieces we'll be looking at specific industries and how 3D printing will impact supply chain logistics in those fields. Keep up with these updates by connecting with us on Facebook, Google+, or Twitter.